Götter der Nationen: Religiöse Erinnerungsfiguren in Serbien, Bulgarien und Makedonien bis 1944, written by Stefan Rohdewald

In: Southeastern Europe
Maria Todorova University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA,

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[Gods of Nations: Religious Figures of Commemmoration in Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia until 1944] (Cologne & Weimar, Germany & Vienna, Austria: Böhlau Verlag, 2014) isbn 0978-3-412-22244-4.

This enormous (over 900 pages) but clearly organized and erudite tome is the work of Stefan Rohdewald, professor of history at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. The book (which was also the Habilitationsschrift of Rohdewald) is centered around the question of the consecutive transformations of sacred religious figures in Southeastern European Slavic Orthodoxy (predominantly Serbian, Bulgarian, and later Macedonian) throughout the medieval and early modern era, the long 19th century, and the interwar period. Firmly established in the genre of “invented traditions,” it brings in a usually neglected aspect: the role and entanglement of religion in the nation-building process.

The German Habilitationsschrift, corresponding to the French thèse d’état, has no exact analogue in English. Loosely translated as a post-doctoral thesis, in Europe it has certain precise criteria. For history this means a voluminous work, the mastery of a long chronological period, demonstrating specialized linguistic (including often palaeographic) knowledge but, at the same time, broad geographical scope and, especially nowadays, a comparative approach and theoretical savviness. This comes with its advantages but also serious drawbacks. As is the case with this work, it is a monument to the undoubted professional skills of the author, his capacity to systematize an enormous corpus of written material and come to convincing conclusions. As a monograph, on the other hand, much of its original authorial contribution is lost in the often redundant and literally repetitious syntheses.

The work is organized in five substantive parts and two technical ones (bibliography and index). It is also furnished with 28 splendid illustrations. The introductory Part i (40 pages) offers the historiographical and theoretical grounding of the work within the latest literature on memory studies and nationalism, and introduces some of its central categories, such as memory sites and memory figures. Part ii (160 pages) provides a survey of the religious memory sites and figures until the 18th century. Parts iii and iv comprise the heart of the work with over 300 pages each and divided chronologically, the first covering the rise of nationalism, the formation and consolidation of nation states, and the institutionalization of memory culture; the second focusing on the period between the First and Second World Wars with the stark intensification and radicalization of the memory discourse in the direction of militarization and adjustment to authoritarian ideologies and geopolitical interests. Finally, Part v (50 pages) provides a summation of the main conclusions of the work and offers a comparative European assessment.

As already mentioned, the main analysis of the work is on the ways medieval cults were nationalized and ideologically manipulated in the era of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Practically all religious figures from the medieval period (and Rohdewald is amazingly meticulous and virtually exhaustive in his survey) were absorbed and re-purposed for modern nationalist use. To use just a few of the myriad examples brought in by the author, Rohdewald convincingly shows how the universalist veneration of the St.St. Cyril and Methodius was “Bulgarianized” after the mid-19th century. Cyril and Methodius had been revered in a universal, anational and supra-ethnic manner since the 9th century by all Slavic peoples, the other Orthodox peoples in the Balkans, and by Rome and Byzantium. It is true that during the Second Bulgarian Empire with its capital in Târnovo (12th–14th centuries) they were already Bulgarianized and used for state-building purposes, but their celebration faded significantly already before the Ottoman conquest and they had to be virtually re-discovered or re-established in the 19th century.

Equally, the synthesis of the rich historiography on the Kosovo myth demonstrates how a broadly known and venerated event across different ethnic groups became by the 19th century the major memory site and central building block of Serb identity. Unlike Bulgaria, where only a few medieval kings were canonized, the Serb tradition of the sanctified Nemanjić dynasty was continuous and served as a legitimation of the Serbian and later Yugoslav monarchy. Even so, the cult of St. Sava, for example, underwent a complex evolution and travel from the Habsburg region to the Ottoman, and from a school patron to the national saint of a sacralized nation. By the interwar period, the formerly venerated figures across ethnic lines were transformed into inflexible markers of separate nations to serve practices of inclusion into a homogeneous nation and separation from neighboring groups. Rohdewald is especially good in showing the complex relationship between state and church negotiating positions and interests over a century to finally fall in line (Rohdewald speaks of amalgamation) in the nation-building process.

Working within (and against) a predominantly nationalist historiography, which still espouses organic nationalism and tends to overstress (if not entirely invent) the ethnic aspect of medieval cults, Rohdewald understandably emphasizes the universalist aspects of the Orthodox saints’ veneration. At the same time, the overuse of categories such as transethnic, transregional, multiethnic, transreligious, transimperial, transcultural and so on, satisfies a modish tendency, but somewhat overplays its case. After all, there is plentiful literature on the late Byzantine Hellenic proto-nationalism to say the least, which would prevent us from minimizing the divisive role of ethnicity among the Orthodox in the medieval and pre-modern period. Our current obsession with the “trans” and “multi” categories, beneficial as it is for breaking the nation-state hegemony in the modern period, flattens the medieval and early modern one. It generates also the corollary problem of agency in that too stark a rupture leaves no space for local developments and continuities, and privileges models of transference and mimicry.

Despite these minor critical remarks, this book is a definite achievement and will stay a definitive work to be consulted by historians of the Balkans, scholars of religion, and broadly by students of nationalism and memory studies.

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