The Antemurale myth is the idea that a nation or group of people were the last or true line of defense before a certain ‘other’. It is used by nationalists to provide a sense of self-importance, worth, and unification with those that fall under the defending identity. It is commonly used within a European context, most often by those that were between Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire or other Islamic ‘threats’.
Unlike many other nationalist myths, it does not distinguish one group as superior, but instead connects it with another and gives the Antemurale group a claim to both belonging and entitlement. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, this myth was particularly useful to newly formed nations looking to escape European ideas of Balkanism, or negative stereotypes of the region in the rest of Europe, especially when they were looking to explain why they should enter or get closer to the EU.
Today, the Antemurale myth has picked up new tones. In the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government claims to be defending Europe from further Russian aggression, while the pro-Russian separatists claim to defend Russia from encroaching Western influence. More recently, European far right parties have applied the myth to defending European values and culture from refugees. Through these two cases, we can see the development of the myth and how the discourse of a threat to Europe is affecting the region.
As a frontier between Christianity and Islam, many countries in the Balkans have adopted a sense of importance because of their self-perceived claim of saving Europe. Slovenia, which was the limit of the Ottomans in Europe at their peak, has the claim of being the literal last line of defense. Croatia’s claim is similar, with the noteworthy exception that the Croatians had the title given to them by Pope Leo X in 1519 for their fight against the Ottomans. These claims were turned into national myths throughout the Yugoslav Wars to control the narrative of the conflict both at home and for an international audience. One such example is shown in this excerpt from “Europe is a Whore” by Boris Buden. It was written in an appeal for assistance to Croatia during Serbian advances. Such claims were also used later by elites from both Slovenia and Croatia in an attempt to distance themselves from the Balkans and push for European integration, such as Tuđman’s campaign slogan in 1997, “Tuđman a ne Balkan/Tudjman not the Balkans” or Tuđman’s failed constitutional proposal to ban the association of Croatia with the Balkans. If European elites saw Slovenia and Croatia as historical defenders of Europe, they would be obligated to help them ‘leave’ the Balkans and reconnect with Europe.
“For almost three hundred years of an uninterrupted war of defense, Croatia has acquired the honest title – antemurale christianitatis – the outer battlements of Western European Christian culture. But this title has been paid for dearly. Croatia has been reduced to the remnants of the remnants. The best evidence for it is its strange shape on the map. For three whole centuries Croatia has been bleeding on its burned and destroyed homes. Entire generations, one after the other, have been sacrificed in defence of their homeland and the whole European civilization. During these three centuries, when at that time the largest non-Christian power in the world was destroying, devastating and conquering Croatia, the western part of the Christian world has slept soundly behind its battlements and developed in every respect (…) At the end of the 20th century (…) Croatia is again in danger from the East (…) The Croats defend their home and their system of values which has been built by Western democracy. And what are Europe and America doing? Western and the other part of world are watching it with an easy conscience. No one wants to intervene actively and that is a betrayal of what they owe to Croatia.”
Excerpt from “Europe is a Whore” by Boris Buden
The Serbian claim to the myth lies with the Battle of Kosovo, where the Ottomans won a pyrrhic victory over Serbian soldiers in 1393, greatly slowing down the Ottoman advance. The manipulation of this national myth to stir nationalism is most visible in Milosevic’s famous Gazimestan speech, which is one of the most important precursors to the Yugoslav conflict. Such rhetoric was used again in Serbian media when putting down the Kosovo independence movement, but this time as a way of turning the conflict into a battle against Muslim fundamentalism trying to push its way into Europe. Through this, Milosevic both portrays Serbia as an antemurale christianitatis and also expresses the Serbian claim to Kosovo through such a title.
“Six centuries ago, Serbia defended itself in the field of Kosovo, but it also defended Europe. Serbia was at that time the bastion that defended the European culture, religion and European society in general. Therefore, today it appears not only unjust, but even unhistorical and completely absurd to talk about Serbia’s belonging to Europe. Serbia has been a part of Europe incessantly, now just as much as it was in the past, of course, in its own way, but in a way that in the historical sense never deprived it of dignity.” – Slobodan Milosevic
Antemurale of Europe today; threat from the East
Other countries in Eastern Europe have similar national myths, most notably Ukraine and Poland because the Ottoman advances reached the Southern tip of their borders. However, their claims of defending Europe are more focused on the present than the past. Following the war in Ukraine, both Ukraine and Poland see a high possibility of a future conflict with Russia. This is creating a modern myth of Ukraine saving Europe by fighting in defense of mainland Europe, propagated by President Poroshenko himself. Poland is also preparing for a potential attack from Russia, building up its military capabilities and preparing for a war where it would potentially be tasked with stopping a Russian invasion not just of Poland but of Europe as a whole.
Because of the potential that such a myth has, pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine have been putting out similar ideas for their benefactors. Under their narrative, they are defending Russia, the Eastern Orthodox world, and any nation not already under Western domination from further Western influence and expansion , as well as from fascism and imperialism. This is seen through social programs that the rebels are hosting, such as the International Anti-Fascist conference in Lugansk, where the organizers plan to “coordinate the international antifascist movement in order to protect the world” from what they see as the final goal of the Western world, which is to “destroy and split up all remaining countries, which are not yet completely bowing to the neo-liberal agenda like Russia, Iran, North Korea and China”. This mentality is also seen in the following recruitment video for the pro-Russian rebels which claims that the rebels are fighting on the front lines of an impending conflict against the foes of humanity.
While this ideology is widely disregarded in the West, it is common within many areas formerly under USSR rule or with individuals under its ideological influence and thus has a vast and specific target audience. Such myths have also managed to convince individuals to fight, not only states. Many interviews with foreigners on both sides show influences of the antemurale myth. A Frenchman fighting for the separatists states that the Maidan revolution was organized by the West within a larger pattern of “overthrowing regimes disagreeable to NATO and the USA” and fighting this force brought him to Ukraine. At the same time, foreign individuals supporting Ukraine from throughout Europe have cited defending Europe through defending Ukraine as their motivation for entering the conflict.
Whether or not one believes either of the narratives, the effect is the same. The local population has a sense of purpose and importance in not just fighting for autonomy but also in defense of a group that they feel connected to. However, the truth is that while the local population may believe the myth, those that both groups claim to defend do not always appreciate their actions or agree with their claims. The separatists are increasingly being ignored by Russia at the expense of its assistance to Syria’s Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Kiev government is trying to get closer to the EU but the EU is not interested in adding a state like Ukraine, which not only doesn’t yet meet the accession criteria but also poses a risk to the rest of the EU should the conflict flair up again. In a very similar situation to Croatia and Slovenia during the Yugoslav wars, the EU and NATO are assisting Ukraine as an ideological ally that wants to be closer to Europe. But if they truly believe that Ukraine is currently fighting for Europe’s future, their level of assistance does not show it.
Antemurale of Europe today; threat from the South
The other ‘threat’ to Europe today is much closer to the historical threat of an Islamic invasion. In only 2015, over a million refugees have left their native countries, many of which are currently in a state of war, to seek a better life in rich Western countries. However, if you ask the very vocal far right within Europe, this is an attack on European culture and values that will bring Sharia law, or religious law organized through different interpretations of Islam, to the continent unless stopped now. Nationalists from different countries often clash on issues but they have now managed to unite over the perceived threat of both the refugees and the alleged liberal compliance with their “plot” to change European demographics. European right-wing groups such as Pegida have decided to take the task of defending Europe from invaders hell bent on changing Europe’s core, or families fleeing war and destruction, depending on who you ask.
A major problem with the refugee wave is that there is no clear way to stop what is happening. There have been attempts to stop the flow, but it is too early to see if such attempts will or will not work. Many of the refugees coming in are entering through the Balkans, one of the poorest parts of Europe which is having trouble closing the smuggling routes used to bring people into the region. Recently many of the land borders have been closed off to refugees, leaving many stuck in the Balkans with nowhere to go. This is what many of the richer EU states want; a curb in the flow of refugees coming from the south, which will lessen the financial burden of caring for them. However, this leaves the refugees stuck where they are and dumps the responsibility on the Balkan countries. Luckily for the Balkans, refugees are not interested in staying in the region because they want to settle in richer European countries.
Refugee law is complicated and undoubtedly many of the refugees are misinformed about the entire process. It states that the refugees are to be processed as asylum seekers in the country where they decide to apply, while European refugee regulations state that an EU country can return an asylum seeker to whichever EU country they entered first. This leaves the refugees with a gamble. They can apply for asylum in a poorer country and settle down quicker or continue moving towards Germany or France where they could receive many more state benefits. But if they hold out on government assistance until in a richer coutry, they risk deportation either to the poorer countries they initially arrived in, or their home country if their application is rejected.
This has led to the Balkans repeating history on a microcosmic scale and once again returning the duty of ‘defending’ Europe from a different culture and peoples. The region is again taking in an influx of foreigners and preventing them from reaching mainland Europe at their own cost. Many of the poor Southern European countries are forced into spending much to both protect their borders and care for what refugees are already there, when they could simply let the refugees continue into countries better financially prepared to deal with the crisis. A major difference is that this time the Muslims are mostly running away from war and conflict instead of being Ottoman soldiers interested in territorial expansion. While this is obviously very different, there are still valid security risks and thus many see the influx of refugees as an existential threat as opposed to a humanitarian catastrophe that needs to be solved. This has led to conflicting views within Europe that make the situation even more complicated. There are many anarchist groups that are openly defying borders and assisting the refugees in cutting through fences while there are vigilante refugee hunters such as Dinko Valev who bragged about capturing 16 Syrian refugees “with his bare hands”.
European countries are legally bound to spend money on assistance and processing of the refugees. These refugees often have little besides what they carry on their backs. Their home countries are poor and war-torn, which brought about the refugee crisis. So who is the winner in this situation? It appears to be Turkey, who has made a ‘one for one’ deal with the EU. Under this deal, one Syrian refugee in Turkey will go to the EU in exchange for one refugee in Europe that is deemed by the EU to not qualify for refugee status. This is questionably legal but drastic times call for drastic measures. This deal was signed in March but there is still debate on the finer points that have been agreed upon. In exchange Turkey is expected to receive many perks from the EU, such as visa-free travel, being seen as a ‘safe country of origin’ in future refugee cases, as well as speeding up the integration of Turkey into the EU while ignoring its numerous human rights violations that have gotten in the way of warmer relations before.
This lets Turkey avoid having to go through costly transitions that other countries had to enact or are still in the process of enacting, simply because Turkey has leverage and Macedonia or Albania do not. The EU is putting up conditions for Turkey as well, but Turkey’s Erdogan is putting out signals that Turkey will not budge on EU demands. While this deal may help Europe in the short term, it has been compared to blackmail. This is especially so because Turkey has been meddling in regional conflicts, particularly in Syria, and bears some responsibility for the refugee crisis that the EU is paying it to fix.
The visa- free travel condition that the EU is offering is a historic mistake. Most of the refugees are fleeing conflict and repressive regimes only to be unwanted from Europe because they are a financial burden and a perceived risk. Instead, 77 million Turks will be given the right to enter and stay in Europe. The only difference is that Turkish immigration into the EU would be with Turks that are significantly richer than many of the refugees and therefore have more to offer to Europe than just cheap labor. Instead of looking for a better solution, the EU is lowering its standards and taking the easy way out while trying to rid itself of the refugees. In the long run, this can be both lethal to the unity of the EU and a drastic change in demographics, both of which are currently seen as issues revolving around letting the refugees stay.
Maybe the European far right, being the Antemurale Christianitatis of today, can take solace in the fact that if the deal works, a significant number of refugees will leave Europe for Turkey. But maybe, the refugees that are deported and given asylum in Turkey will once again return to Europe, this time legally, if they take the steps to become Turkish citizenship. Either way, the push for a solution to the refugee crisis has led to some sort of solution. However, to end this ‘invasion’ of Europe, the solution can’t come from within. It has to start with ending the conflicts and other problems that are driving people to seek a better life in the first place.
Lindstrom, Nichole. “Between Europe and the Balkans: Mapping Slovenia and Croatia’s “Return to Europe” in the 1990s.” Dialectical Anthropology 27.3/4 (2004): 1-17.
Petrovic, Tanja. “On The Way To Europe.” Ed. Igor Štiks. Welcome to the Desert of Post-socialism: Radical Politics after Yugoslavia. Ed. Srećko Horvat. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2015.