Having spent the last month glued to the television for my quadrennial attack of soccerphilia– the World Cup– and having pulled for the thrilling underdogs of Croatia to their valiant defeat Sunday, I have one political observation to make: What if Yugoslavia had not broken apart in ethnic nationalism 30 years ago? Could that team have beaten France? What is achieved by partition?
Many people are remarking on the diversity of the champion French team. It was the model of players from different backgrounds coming together to produce brilliance on the field. Pogba has Guinean ancestry and is Muslim. The young hero of the tournament, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, has Cameroon and Algerian ancestry. The great Greizmann is of German-Portuguese ancestry. Varane has a Martiniquais father and a French mother, whatever French now means…
Meanwhile, there was a lot less diversity on the Croatian team. My favorite players’ names all ended with -ic. They all looked white to me.
Croatia was formerly part of Yugoslavia, which broke up in the early 90’s amid terrible ethnic/religious violence. Serbia, another constituent of the former Yugoslavia, was also in the World Cup draw of 32 teams, and was in a very tough group, and went out despite solid performance. I understand that Slovenia (another constituent of Yugoslavia) has a pretty good soccer team too. Imagine how much stronger they could have been together!
Of course mine is an idle question. But the principle is an important one. Nation states are fairly arbitrary collectives. They’re “imagined communities,” in the famous Benedict Anderson formulation, and every nation state comprises a lot of diversity, as the red-blue division of the U.S. demonstrates. But they hew together for the advantages that the modern nation state confers in a competitive unpredictable world, to be players. One reason we dis the two-state solution on this site is because even if Palestine became a viable state, 20 percent of Israel would be Palestinian. Discrimination and ethnic expulsion would still be sore, destabilizing questions in the “Jewish state.” When the true answer is, Equal rights. Ali Abunimah has always said that Israel and Palestine naturally comprise one country (Palestine) between the river and the sea.
Abunimah has also opined that partition doesn’t work. And though ethnic cleansing may “work” for a time, it creates enormous suffering/displacement/irredentism. Many of the Jews who survived the great genocide of WW2 left Poland for Palestine, displacing Palestinians, and the refugees are an unending grievance. Yes, Poland was a place of incredible trauma, but some Jews decided to stick it out, like the great fighter/Bundist Marek Edelman, because Edelman subscribed to principles of coexistence. Maybe he was right about Jews in Poland. I certainly felt that way on my visit.
So today I imagine that if Yugoslavia had overcome its differences, it would be champion.
P.S. Here is an excerpt from Roger Cohen’s book on Yugoslavia, Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo, in which he condemns the myths of tribe that overcame the “reality of mingling.”
The unscrambling of centuries of miscegenation in Europe in the name of relatively new ideas–that of the “nation-state” and its perversion, the “nation-as-tribe”–reached a paroxysm during the twentieth century. Hitler and Stalin moved or annihilated millions in the name of racist ideology or social engineering. More than one million Greeks were “resettled” from Turkey during the 1920s; six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazi’s; more than three million ethnic Germans from Central Europe and the Soviet Union were “resettled”in the aftermath of World War II. Violence, the very heart of fascist ideologies in which differences of class and background were subsumed, grew in proportion to the often tenuous reality of the national idea. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger has observed, “The Aryan was never anything more than a risible construct,” a form of “compensation” for the mixed blood of the German and Austrian peoples. Similarly, in the Balkans, the post-communist “construct” of the Serbian, Croatian, and finally Bosnian Muslim nations had to be imbued with a compensatory fervor that masked the reality of mingling expressed in the idea of Yugoslavia. This fervor of the resurgent nation–built as much around legend as historical fact–in turn produced bloodshed not seen in Europe since 1945.