Saturday, October 28, 2006
The History of the Byzantine State
John Makedonski wrote:I recently saw a book by Ostrogorsky, The History of the Byzantine State where the proofs coming from the so-called historical institutes in Sofia that Samuil was Bulgarian or indeed, related to the proto-Bulgarian king Asparuh, are labeled as "fantastic views" Here we go again! John, like the rest of the macedonist crowd, is using a reference to a book by one of the fathers of the Yugoslav state doctrine of "macedonism", as if it were an independent and neutral historical source, in order to prove a major point of the same governmental doctrine.
So, who is this George Ostrogorsky and what are his scientific credentials?
His real name actually is Georgije Ostrogorski (1902-76). In John’s country, he has been proclaimed as "the most significant Byzantologist of the century". For years he was the Director of the Institute of Byzantology of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, chief editor of the series "Byzantine Sources for the History of the Peoples of Yugoslavia", and - one must notice - he was three times awarded Yugoslav government prizes for his contribution to society - in 1957, 1967 and 1970.
As his students noted in the preface to "Melanges Georges Ostrogorsky" (1963) he has been praised for his contributions to the study of the economic and social history of Byzantium, problems of ideology and governmental structure, and Byzantine-South Slavic relations, as well as for his "scientific historical approach" (read "Marxist").
His first splash in the field of Byzantology was in 1947, when Beograd published in Serbian his university textbook "Istorija Vizantije" [History of Byzantium] (269 p.). In the preface, the author himself emphasised the need for a Marxist understanding of history in the "spirit of the popular liberation movement of the Yugoslav peoples". As time passed, this textbook was expanded and refined in the numerous Yugoslav editions to encompass the evolution of the Marxist views in Beograd and the fine points of state historical doctrine. In its last incarnation, it reached almost 700 pages, exclusive of illustrations, maps and tables.
Without any intent to minimize Prof. Ostrogorski’s achievements, I would like to point out three curious details. First, all universities and major libraries in Yugoslaviya were closed from the spring of 1941 to the fall of 1945 because of the war. At the start of the war Ostrogorski was only 39 years old. It would be a great injustice to Serbian historic scholarship to presume that a 39-year old was the best qualified expert in a field such as Byzantine studies. Second, prior to his "most important work" (the general history of Byzantium), Georgije Ostrogorski had never written a single monograph on Byzantine history except for his doctoral dissertation on 10th-century village communities in Byzantium. And third (and, in my view, most significant of all), nowhere in his works can one see bibliographical references to Greek authors! Does that mean that he actually did not know Greek, or - if he knew it - that he totally disregarded the contribution of Greek authors to the history of their nation?
This historian did publish monographs, but well after his magnum opus. Some of them are, in effect, short popularizations, such as "Byzantine Cities in the Early Middle Ages", (21 p.) and "The Byzantine Empire in the World of the Seventh Century (20 p.), Cambridge, Mass, 1959. Others are ambitious efforts at exploration of the Byzantine world, tainted, unfortunately, by crude ideology.
As noted by John Hussey, the English language translator (from German) of Ostrogorski’s "History of the Byzantine State", the translation of this work was needed in order to offer Western historians an alternative view of history. We can see a clear pattern of the foreign editions of this work: first comes the Italian (Torino), then - the French (Bruxelles/Paris), then - the German/Dutch (Muenchen/Amsterdam), then the British (Oxford, Blackwell), and finally - the American (New Brunswick, NJ). This happened twice, in the late 50’s and in the late 60’s, especially in 1969. The pattern and the clustering of Western editions of "History of the Byzantine State" strongly suggest a Yugo government propaganda campaign, and possibly even financial sponsorship of successive translations. We don’t really deal here with just an "alternative view" of Byzantine history: what Professor Ostrogorski’s history books present is the Yugoslav communist state historical doctrine of the time in which they were written, and in particular, the doctrine of Macedonism.
Georgije Ostrogovski’s "History of the Byzantine State" is the only such tome in the English language, as far as I know, which never mentions the surname of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II (958-1025), known to the world at large as "Boulgaroktonos" [Slayer of Bulgars]. Every - but every - history book in the world except those published by Yugo "istorichari" would tell you that in 1018 this Byzantine Emperor annexed all the Bulgarian territories. But not this book by one of the fathers of modern macedonism: according to him, Basil II annexed the "Macedonian kingdom" (well, at least he did not call the Emperor "Makedonoktonos"!).
John &Co. should not rely solely on the derivative historical works of people like the late Professor Georgije Ostrogorski in order to learn what is a "fantastic view" of history. In John’s own city, Bitola, there is an old fortress - the last Bulgarian fortress taken by the army of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. And there is an inscription on the stone by the last Bulgarian king of that dynasty, Ioan Vladislav, who in 1016 A.D. wrote about rebuilding the fortress. He had left on the stone for future generations his name "ioanom samodr’zhcem bl’garsko[m]" (by Ioannes the Bulgarian Sovereign) and also the words "byst bl’garin rodom" (Bulgarian by birth). On this stone the last Bulgarian king of this last Bulgarian kingdom of the time (situated in the territory of today’s Vardar Macedonia) wrote also about his blood ties to the rest of the rulers of that kingdom. The language, I am sure, will not be that difficult for John to understand. Then, after having read what was chiseled for him on the stone, he will have to decide for himself whose "fantastic story" to believe. It basically comes down to that.
P.S. I expect that John might try to counter my impeachment of Prof. Georgije Ostrogorski’s credibility with an argument of the type, "if so, how come reputable Western publishers printed his major work not only once, but at least twice?"
My answer is simple: it must have been quite interesting for Western historians to understand better the dominant historical doctrine of the Yugoslav communist state. We have testimonies to that in the scholarly reviews of the time. Second - although less important - in this world, money talks. Publishers of scientific literature have been known to accept subsidies for the printing books which would not have made it on their own merits. Let me bring to your attention an interesting bibliography on just a few of the foreign-language scientific publications of a first lady from Eastern Europe who was paraded as a chemist, although (after she perished) we learned that she never really finished high school:
Ceausescu, Elena. "Stereospecific polymerization of isoprene", 1st English ed. Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York : Pergamon, 1983. x, 280 p.
Ceausescu, Elena. "Nouvelles recherches dans le domaine des composes macromoleculaires", Oxford ; New York : Pergamon, 1984, 451 p.
Ceausescu, Elena. "Vyskumy z oblasti makromolekulovych latok", Bratislava, Veda, 1986, 582 p.
Ceausescu, Elena. "Dostizhenija v khimii i tekhnologii polimerov" (translated from Romanian). Moscow, "Nauka", 1988, 309 p. And again, don’t get me wrong! In no way am I trying to compare Tovarisa Elena with Professor Ostrogorski - just to drive home the point that anything is possible in the world of publishing. And here, in essence, is the beauty of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. However, in the marketplace of ideas, "caveat emptor" continues to be the rule.