From Völkerpsychologie to New Area Studies: Trajectories of Südost(europa)forschung

By Diana Mishkova

Lecture on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS), Regensburg, November 27, 2020

Any discussion of the German tradition of Southeast European studies should proceed from two basic premises. First, that proximity and imperial expansion ensured the almost uninterrupted German political and economic involvement in the area. Second, that German-language scholarship – mainly Austro-Hungarian before WWI and mainly German after that – contributed most to the painstaking study of the region and the stabilizing of the Balkans and Southeastern Europe as a historical region. Arguably, the two are inextricably connected. Indeed, the final phase of the so-called Eastern question, i.e. the question about the partition and succession of the Ottoman empire, in the early twentieth century, boosted state-supported research into Southeastern Europe outside the region. Although it reached its peak in the interwar period, Südostforschung, goes back precisely to the period prior to and during World War I and relates to the emergence, among Austro-Hungarian and German financial and diplomatic circles, of the notion of Southeastern Europe as an adjacent economic and political area opened up for grabs.

This being said, the early trajectory of Südostforschung avant la lettre was more convoluted than a direct subservience of scholarship to politics or economic interest might suggest. For most of the nineteenth century, the exploration of Southeastern Europe was overshadowed by the much more developed “Slavistics,” which combined linguistics, literature, history, and ethnography. The scholarly tradition of Slavic studies in the German-speaking world for decades exerted a most powerful impact on the course of research into Southeastern Europe. Germany was also at the forefront of the institutionalization of Byzantine studies as an autonomous scholarly discipline at the end of the 19th c. as well as of Ottoman studies, which until after World War II were dominated by German and Hungarian scholars. Not only did the systematic and inclusive conception of Byzantine and Ottoman studies encompass the whole Balkan peninsula, but they approached the research field of Southeastern Europe “from the other side,” from the point of view of Constantinople/Istanbul, for which the southeast was the northwest. This was a significant shift of perspective in itself, which was capable of counterbalancing the “one-sidedness” of the Central European or German-centered viewpoint.

Around the turn of the twentieth century Leipzig, along with Vienna, played a key role in promoting comparative Balkan linguistics, folklore, and ethnography. Next to his studies on Old-Bulgarian and Church Slavonic languages, the Slavist August Leskien introduced the idea of crisscrossing Balkan poetic cultures. In his Ethnography of Macedonia (1924), the linguist Gustav Weigand, searched for the sources of the enormous ethnic and linguistic diversity of Macedonia. His book became a blueprint for Balkan ethnography and, at the same time, a key reference in the Bulgarian national narrative of Macedonia. In fact, almost all Bulgarian philologists and ethnographers until after World War I were students of Leskien and Weigand.

So, whereas we need not doubt the preeminence of geopolitical and imperial projects when we think of the way Southeastern Europe – and indeed any world region – came into being, we ought to also take into account the proper “politics” of scholarship involved, which often concurred with and benefited from political interest, but sometimes also indirectly subverted it. As a cultural-historical concept, Southeastern Europe emerged at a time of burgeoning militant nationalism, which culminated with the Balkan wars and World War I. In this original conception of the region as an entity, the contribution of the German-language balkanistic literature, Austrian and German, was most consequential in that it put in the center of attention intraregional linkages and interactions.

One of the issues that occupied me while writing on the scholarly concept of the Balkans was the issue about the relationship between Südostforschung and the scholarly approaches to Southeastern Europe inside the region. The picture I have ended up with proved to be more complex than I expected. Let me give two suggestive examples.

In the imagological literature on the Balkans the notion of a “Balkan mentality” – a rightly criticized one – has traditionally been attributed to dubious academic fashions external to the region, above all to German Völkerpsychologie, that tended to portray the Balkan cultures as a sanctuary of patriarchal practices and lifestyles long extinct elsewhere in Europe. To mention just two names from the period between the two world wars: The prominent German Slavist and “folk psychologists” of the Balkan Slavs, Gerhard Gesemann, eulogized Balkan patriarchal life and spoke of Balkan heroische Lebensform, Hendeltum and humanitas heroica. The philologist and founding president of Deutsche Akademie in Munich, Franz Thierfelder, saw the future of the Balkan peoples, not in their catching up with the West, but in serving as a reservoir of archaic purity and resisting the corrupting influence of western modernity. Such portrayals of Southeastern Europe, clad in scholarly respectability, were later held responsible for the stabilization of the image of the region as an exotic place living in a different temporality from the rest of Europe. Gesemann for example claimed that acquaintance with the Balkan patriarchal society was necessary for enriching the spiritual aspect of German classics and Romanticism, because it deepened the knowledge of the Germans’ proper self, their own ancient patriarchy and folk tradition. Put differently, German Southeastern European studies have often been accused of having partaken strongly in romanticizing Balkan under-modernity in the service of sentimental constructions of Germany’s “infant self.” As a matter of fact, however, this image was not the result of a one-way flow of ideas from Germany to Southeastern Europe, but of scholarly communication between regional and German scholars within the common framework of Geistesgeschichte. The para-historical notion of a Balkan Sonderweg (or what the then local balkanologists called ‘irreducible Balkan individuality’) based on profound – and, according to them, beneficial – cultural difference and asynchrony between the countries of the region and the West was not, or not only, a Balkan “import”. It formed the cornerstone of a homegrown balkanism, which took various academic, artistic, intellectual, even political incarnations. Its earliest mouthpiece was no other than the high-profile Serbian human geographer Jovan Cvijić, who saw the Balkan Slavs as the embodiment of an idealized patriarchal culture and the bedrock of the pre-modern yet superior mentality of the Balkans. One might say that interwar Südostforschung was, indeed, strongly influenced by Cvijic’s ethnopsychological approach.

My other example elucidates from a different angle the complex relationships between politics and scholarship, on one hand, and between local and German articulations of Southeastern Europe, on the other. It concerns what seems to me an interesting bifurcation between the practitioners of Südostforschung at a time when this study field evolved into a “warring science” increasingly entangled with Nazi racial policy and expansionism. The various implications of Südostforschung with the politics of the Third Reich have been an object of intense discussions during the last fifteen years and Wolfgang Höpken’s book will certainly be a major contribution to this debate. My purpose here, given the time constraint, is simply to hint at the composite and ambivalent nature of German academic engagement with Southeastern Europe, with its dark and bright sides, through few selected cases.

While we can safely assume the existence of considerable political and ideological convergence between the scholars active in Nazi Germany, this conformity did not lead to converging regional geographies or a consensual view about whether the Balkans and Southeastern Europe should become part of (the German concept of) Central Europe or about the role it should play in “New Europe.” Much of this research was carried out with great erudition and dexterity, while geopolitically driven projects could be defended with remarkably sophisticated arguments.

An intriguing illustration in this respect – and one that throws into relief the controversial role of German Southeast European studies during this period – is presented by the mastermind behind the Südost-Institut in Munich, Fritz Valjavec. It is well known that Valjavec was a dedicated advocate of the Nazi expansionist and racial program, and an active member of the SS, who stood by Hitler´s new racial order and the greater economic area under Nazi leadership. As an erudite historian of Southeastern Europe, on the other hand, he had left remarkably insightful regional conceptualizations, in many respects presaging the present-day debates on the makings and transience of regions. For Valjavec the Balkans and Southeastern Europe were two different regions, the exploration of which does not always coincide. He defined the Balkans not as a geographical or political but as a historical space, defined by the Byzantine and Ottoman historical legacies, which were responsible for its cultural unity and ethnic blending. After their secession from the Ottoman Empire, he wrote, the Balkan states underwent a process of fast and sweeping Europeanization, which implied “cultural ‘de-Byzantinization’ and ‘de-Balkanization’.” State-promoted nationalism further undermined the common Balkan traits bequeathed by the previous political unity. Under the growing sway of the west and nationalism, the Balkans were becoming ever more “Southeast European” in the sense of acquiring socio-political and cultural elements common to the entire European Southeast (which included not only the Balkans but also Hungary and Slovakia). The Balkan wars and World War I thus signaled the terminus ante quem of the Balkans.

By contrast, Valjavec admitted the lack of a “unitary research area and unitary concept of Southeastern Europe” (einheitlichen Südosteuropabegriff). For him, Southeastern Europe served above all as a “working concept” (Arbeitsbegriff) rather than an integrated unit of analysis. Its “spatial-territorial boundaries remain fluid,” and its unity was not a precondition for the research on this area, but a way of approaching or looking at it and of proceeding.

One should acknowledge that Valjavec’s vision of historical spaces is remarkably modern. He neatly distinguished between the historical, and thus transient, reality of the Balkans as the Byzantine-Ottoman legacy and the “working concept” of Southeastern Europe, and underscored the variability of boundaries in time and space. In this he made explicit the connection between regional conceptualizations and political changes in not only spatial but also – indeed, mainly – social terms: it was through industrialization, migration, and national homogenization that the Balkans was divested of its Byzantine-Ottoman, “Balkan” attributes to become part of a bigger “European” whole. In Valjavec’s spatial projections, therefore, diachronic dynamics and historical change took center stage, thus highlighting the need to resist attributing timeless (or “essentialist”) qualities to cultures and traditions. Writing in 1980, Mathias Bernath, one of the foremost pundits of the Südosteuropaforschung after the war, held that if in the international scholarly community Southeastern Europe had become widely accepted as a Raumbegriff and a field of interdisciplinary regional studies, the main credit should go to the life work of Fritz Valjavec. At the same time, one cannot fail to note the convenient fit of Valjavec’s theoretically sophisticated reasoning with the propaganda declaration of the Nazi press at the time that “the Balkans is dead” and “Southeastern Europe is born.”

Of note here is that scholars within the Balkan region showed no enthusiasm for replacing Balkanforschung with Südostforschung. In fact, behind the battle of names lurked two conflicting projects: one local, aimed at emancipating and consolidating the Balkans as a political and living cultural space under the slogan “the Balkans for the Balkan peoples”; the other bolstering a hegemonic political agenda captured by the “artificial” geopolitical concept of Southeastern Europe. Significantly, the “balkanists” counted in their ranks a host of German experts, among them the geographers Josef März and Karl Haushofer, the literary scholar Gerhard Gesemann, the byzantinist Franz Dölger, the medievalist Georg Stadtmüller, the economist Hermann Gross, the linguist Franz Thierfelder, the historian Hermann Wendel, etc. They promoted views that chimed with the local understanding of the Balkans as a living cultural-historical entity with a political future, of course, within the benevolent German orbit. Albeit never openly explicated, there existed an epistemic split between the Balkanforscher and the Südostforscher.

This interwar legacy goes a long way towards explaining the terminological, and implicitly semantic, move from Südost-Forschung to Südosteuropa-Forschung after the Second World War. According to a post-war prominent don of the field, Edgar Hösch, after 1945 a fundamental paradigm shift in Southeast European research took place, largely carried out by its prewar practitioners, from regional research committed to a “Greater German conception of space” to contextualization of Southeast European history as part of European history. In point of fact, however, the shift took place only gradually and was never, before the late 1990s, linked with a critical reflection on the discipline’s recent past or theoretical premises.

In view of the Cold-War context, the subordinate status of Südosteuropa-Forschung within the “master discipline” of Ostforschung and the crucial role of the prewar “veterans” in re-establishing the institutional base of the field in the 1950s should not surprise. Fritz Valjavec was the key figure in institutionalizing Südosteuropa-Forschung on “new basis” and reopening the Südost-Institut in Munich which, until the 1960s, prided itself on being the only organization in Western Europe specialized in this area. It performed both basic research and the so-called at the time “functional research” (Zweckforschung), meant to provide expert reports to federal ministries. Valjavec also took an active part in the foundation, in 1951, of the Southeast German Cultural Association and, in 1952, the Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft, which was intended to promote cultural and scholarly connections to the region.

A characteristic feature of German postwar Southeast European research – with no analogue in other research traditions – is the disciplinary distinction between “Balkan studies” and “Southeast European studies”. Balkanologie, in the words of Norbert Reiter, the long-time director of the Institute of Balkanology at the Free University in Berlin, is “at the core a linguistic discipline” broadly understood to include ethnography, folklore and literary studies and as an immanently social science aimed at understanding multiethnic interaction. Reiter’s engagement with the convergences between the Balkan languages led him to conceptualize “Eurolinguistics,” a term he coined for the study of linguistic similarities in Europe. He thus ventured to not simply de-provincialize Balkanology as a discipline, but to apply the Balkan transnational experience as a blueprint for a broader Europe.

Südosteuropa-Forschung, on the other hand, was understood as a broadly multidisciplinary field strongly influenced by the historische Sozialwissenschaft and comprising (modern) history, anthropology, cultural studies, the social sciences, economic theory, religion and nationalism studies. From the 1960s, boosted by the “new Ostpolitik” and the burgeoning institutionalization of Southeast European studies in and outside the region, Südosteuropa-Forschung linked to an American kind of area studies, delving in historical and contemporary research within the overarching paradigm of modernization theory and development studies. Meanwhile the veterans Fritz Valjavec and Franz Ronneberger called for a “strict separation of Southeastern from Eastern Europe in the geographical, historical and cultural sense”, deplored the perverted image of the region as “Europe’s backyard,” pleaded to “de-ideologize and de-mythologize ‘the Balkans’,” and sought to promote its European belonging. Both also distinguished Southeastern Europe as that part of the continent where German scholarship, compared to French, British or North American with their interest in parts of this area or in Eastern Europe, had the chance to play the leading role. Faced with the challenge of the rising Osteuropaforschung and building on the sociological and ethnological advances of the interwar Volksbodenforschung, the proponents of Southeast European studies attempted to go beyond the “working concept” approach and frame a distinct Südosteuropa-Begriff as a prerequisite for sustaining an autonomous research field. The search for such a concept evolved in two complementary directions.

One, following the trail blazed by Valjavec, projected a cultural-historical understanding of Southeastern Europe based on the legacies of four great powers: the Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, and the Habsburg Monarchy. Mathias Bernath, Valjavec’s successor at the head of the Südost-Institut since 1960, upheld a similar understanding of the region, stressing its “historical-cultural unity in the diversity” (Einheit in der Vielfalt). Another direction was spurred by a younger generation of historians, dealing with a newly defined Ostmitteleuropa (East Central Europe), like Werner Conze, Klaus Zernack and later Gottfried Schramm, who leaned toward a rigorously structural definitions of regions. It is to this research direction that one should attribute factoring in the specifics of nationalism and nation-state building as a hallmark of postwar German Südosteuropa-Forschung. While recommending regional studies as an antidote to nationalist feeling, Mathias Bernath put comparative nationalism studies in the center of historical German literature. Such preoccupations linked up with the long German tradition of “nationality studies” since the nineteenth century, now embellished with the theoretical advancements in this field. I am at one with Wolfgang Hoepken when he argues that modernization theory and nationalism studies since the 1960s and 70s were the fields, where the previously rather isolated German studies of Southeastern Europe linked up with the theoretical discussion taking place in the general history and the social sciences.

Most recently German Southeast European scholarship has taken a prominent part in the debate over the definition of historical regions. In contrast to the constructivist and postcolonial approaches dominating the English language Southeast European research, German scholarship has remained strongly attached to the notion of historical region. It is beset by questions about the characteristic structural features of Southeastern Europe that distinguish it from other European regions and the grounds for considering it as a coherent whole.

All in all, when we talk of German impact on the research tradition of Southeast European studies, at least two things stand out. The first is that, from among the scholarly traditions outside the region, German Südost(europa)forschung has contributed most to this study field, in terms of longevity, quantity and quality. The second is that, unlike the Anglo-Saxon school of Southeast European studies, where the great majority of scholars come from the region or are genealogically connected to it, it is far less the case in the German tradition. This has not necessarily prevented the latter from developing strong country-based expertise or sympathies for certain ‘pet nations’ at the expense of others. But it goes some way in explaining the fact that, relative to other foreign traditions, the German Südost(europa)forschung has always been more prone to look at the region as a whole and to invest in comparative intraregional research. But strengths come along with liabilities. Precisely because it remains faithful to the concreteness of Southeastern Europe, Südost(europa)forschung at present sees itself more strongly pressed to justify its existence – and of area studies generally – in the face of an increasingly globalized world that resists ready categorization into geographically bounded and culturally distinctive regional units. A possible response to this challenge might be drawn from the methodological precept formulated by Mihai Berza, a Romanian Southeast-Europeanist, who once wrote that when seeking to define the ambit of Southeastern Europe, we should start not from territory but from “phenomena related to man and follow them each time in their entire territorial extension.” My historical sense of a fellow-Südostforscher tells me that the territorial extension in question is primarily regional and only by another extension global.

Diana Mishkova is Professor of History in Sofia and Director of the Centre for Advanced Study in Sofia. She is Foreign Corresponding Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and Doctor Honoris Causa of Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.

Featured image: Map of Southeast Europe; library of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies. Source: IOS/

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