Too Postmodern to Bear

We live in a time when the grand histories of past times are being revisited. They are also often reinterpreted in view of the postmodern condition of interrogating the ideologies and personal interest that may have influenced historiographers accounts. We have come to the realisation that the history of the world is much more than the history of Western culture and colonization. We have discovered the histories of the oppressed together with the omissions in histories of the victors. Applying postmodern and new historical methods to conventional history, however, poses the threat of a perversion of history similar to that attempted by D. Irving who tried to deny the Holocaust claiming that no Jews were killed in gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp. In a trial held at the High Court in London, Irving was found, to put it mildly, wrong and his writings were found to be neo-fascist and racist propaganda. It is perhaps to avoid similar attempts to assure the world that Hitler was probably the best friend the Jews ever had in the Third Reich that the EU is putting forward new anti-denial legislation (See page 2).

On April 24th a German scientist and a Bulgarian art critic brought forward a thesis that caused the indignation of all Bulgarians. It was later (on April 26th) condemned by the President of Bulgaria as utterly unacceptable and a sharp provocation against Bulgarian national history and memory. According to Ulf Brunnbauer and Martina Baleva, the Batak massacre, where thousands of people were slaughtered by Turkish troops, was a myth and there was no reliable historical evidence to support it, except for the 1892 picture by contemporary Polish artist, A. Piotrovski The Batak Massacre. He painted the picture after reading the three-volume book Notes of Bulgarian Uprisings by Zahari Stoyanov (volumes published in 1884, 1887, 1892). They also distrust J. MacGahans articles because of his pro-Russian leanings. The Sveta Nedelya church in Batak, however, now a museum, contains the skulls and bones of several thousand women, children and elders of the Rhodopi town, who were literally cut into pieces by a ruthless army. Estimates of the total number of victims say that at least 15,000 people were slaughtered, more than 80 villages and towns were destroyed, and another 200 plundered in the suppression of the April Uprising of 1876.

One of the journalists who visited the town of Batak in August 1876, J. A. MacGahan wrote about the atrocities he personally observed in The London Daily News (August 22, 1876): Once inside the town MacGahan described thousands of bodily parts, beheaded corpses, mostly of women and girls, as well as the remains of children who had all been beheaded. He also heard several stories from eye-witnesses who saw little babies carried about the streets, both here and at Olluk-Kni, on the points of bayonets. When they entered the Sveta Nedelya church they realised that what they thought to be a heap of stones and rubbish rising five or six feet above the level of the street was in reality an immense heap of human bodies covered over with a thin layer of stones. The whole of the little churchyard is heaped up with them to the depth of three or four feet, and it is from here that the fearful odor comes. I shall at this point discontinue relating the horrendous account of the destruction of people that is only comparable to the Belgian massacre in the Congo, the Holocaust, the 1915 mass killing of Armenians by the Turkish army, and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Stalin in the 1950s and the Serbs in 1993 are perhaps less prominent examples of bestial behaviour towards other human beings simply because they observed a certain discretion but no less thoroughness in the execution of their tasks.

The immediate response to the shameful thesis of the two above mentioned mythologists by the Batak Mayor, Mr. Paunov, and the Bulgarian historian Bojidar Dimitrov was that they would initiate legal proceedings against this outrageous attempt to alter Bulgarian history. The Bulgarian Academy of Science and the Ethnographic Museum officially stated that they would not give any of their premises for presenting the project and insisted that their names be in no way whatsoever connected to such a pseudo-scientific contribution. After two days of heated debate the authors of the Myth of the Batak Massacre withdrew their scandalous thesis and cancelled the conference.

I cannot forget the warning of Jacques Derrida that the first duty of the interpreter of history is to determine a dominant interpretation, an interpretation whose dominance has been historically established, using all the traditional resources of the scholar, including knowledge of the literary, philosophical, rhetorical traditions, the history of [the] language, society, history. Otherwise, one could just say anything at all.

May 2007