The Millennium Code

Against the backdrop of the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Freimut Duve was thinking in 1994 about the new phenomena of digitalisation and globalisation.

By Freimut Duve 

In the previous 200 years the historiographical picture of the last 2,000 presents a wonderfully simple, cyclical image – Byzantium and Rome, Constantinople and Christianity, Islam’s pincer movement in Spain and the Balkans. All these shapes on maps have disregarded the substantial development of culture over two millennia, its mixing, its diversity. Bosnians are of course Europeans and there are many Turkish people in Anatolia who used to be Bosnian, therefore European, and of course there’s scarcely a German church that doesn’t have Italian or French elements in its construction. Of course Islamic culture has at various times shaped Spanish (and, as a result, French) culture in very diverse ways.

In his “Clash of Civilizations”, the historian and political theorist Samuel P. Huntington came up with the idea of homogeneously conceived civilisations. A lot of his arguments are valid but the conclusions are too simplistic – we’re caught between the shackles of supranational civility and the siren drumbeat of a homogeneity that hasn’t existed for centuries. This lust for sameness can nowadays reach the smallest groups and is never defined by the cultural realm but, at most, exploits it.

The ’90s are evidence that civility and terror are global cyphers for the millennial turn. Creeping globalisation, of our German society as well, changes the nature of conflicts. Each seems to necessitate the other, the peril of globally intended but locally acting terror and the chance for a locally stable but globally oriented civic sense.

Globalism in our world is transmitted by way of three techniques of globalisation: television, telephone, aviation. Initially with a couple of generations’ time lag, the railway and (nearly a 100 years later) the car definitively changed the nature of mobility within societies and then between nations.


Just like the railways in the 19th century, the aeroplane in the 20th, the economic system and patterns of warfare have been redefined. Since the ’70s the new, potentially global ad hoc presence arising from satellites and electronics has no longer been under the exclusive control of state or quasi-governmental agencies (that largely control the old and cumbersome telex system that shows your flight connections).

Noted by everyone yet rarely acknowledged in political discourse, electronic synchronicity – first realised in the ’80s – hasn’t just dangerously revolutionised stock market transactions. When everyone can get information about anything 24/7, if an individual perpetrator can simultaneously give their side of the story to the world by fax or phone, when parties to a conflict can mobilise people and public opinion on a global scale, then that’s the end of old wars, traditional conflicts, between nation states. The ways in which disputes are staged are altering, thereby twisting and abbreviating the salvation narratives of “culture” or “religion” into a joker card. Even the apparently solid Chinese civilisation is subject to the pressures of globalisation.

I suspect that, in the near future, the consequences of this globalisation will at the very least exert as much stress on political systems as have the other major issues of the ’90s – questions of economic policy, the culture of work and the limits of nature’s resilience.

After the Second World War, civic western Europe had an idea of itself – democracy, unity, the desire for a personal and external freedom as defined by the west, held together by the military and ideological counterforces beyond the Wall. The European legacy of humanism was incorporated in the former in a different way compared to within what we now think of as a dictatorial state. Both hostile blocs seem to have several fundamental principles in common despite their irreconcilability – both camps paid lip service at least to not regressing down a nationalistic cul de sac.


The consensus around civic Europe has been shattered by the war in former Yugoslavia

Both claimed “internationalism” as a positive common goal. Both blocs asserted after 1945 that racialist ideologies could no longer have any place in the modern world. South Africa had “ideologically” united the world. In a series of UN resolutions relating to South Africa’s apartheid system, the Americans and Soviets seemed as united as the West Germans and East Germans. Of course each side attempted to tar the other with the same brush as the common pariah – the west was accused of itself practising a form of apartheid, the east criticised for imperialist aims. But this mechanism of blame and warning functioned on the basis of – though usually only verbally expressed – common grounds in principle.

At least in theory, communist dictatorship after Stalin also aimed to establish a civic sensibility – free coexistence between people of different creeds, nationalities or cultures. As these dictatorships crumbled, it became as a result more or less certain that now it’s all about the development of democracy, the rule of law and the market economy, whatever the painful detours along the way. Civic Europe arose before the eyes of us all – the Europe of citizens’ rights that supersedes all ethnic and “racial” classifications.

The consensus around civic Europe has been shattered by the war in former Yugoslavia. Parts of former Yugoslavia have become the stage for the first war of terror since 1945. Terror around lineage and separation, belonging and exclusion. In other specious wording and dressed in the deadly veil of “Balkan”, the madness of 1930s’ and ’40s’ German racism reaches out once more. The powers that be decide who is Serbian, who is Croatian.

The millions caught up in this, the children and grandchildren, whose grandfathers and grandmothers still go to mosques, whose parents attend Orthodox or Catholic churches, are forced into a delusion of belonging defined by populist nationalists. At the onset of war, 36% of all marriages in the industrial town of Tuzla were “mixed” – between followers of different religions. The town’s authorities estimate that around a third of the citizens are no longer considered members of any of the religious communities, either because they have no interest or because they often have grandparents from all three religions. But categorising becomes the determining political criterion of all domestic war aims and all the international community’s peace-making efforts.

In one aspect, the grief of displaced Bosnians who survived expulsion from their towns resembles that of Lebanese refugees in the middle of the ’70s: they continually talk about the memory of peaceful coexistence with neighbours of other creeds, telling of encounters and friendships –Muslims talk of Christians, Christians of Muslims. Until their eyes cloud over: “Now everything’s destroyed, the other side stole everything from us.”

The lived reality in cities like Beirut or Sarajevo was marked much more strongly by coexistence than by separation. In the memory always. The hope of return often weighs directly on the yearning after this kind of cultural civic sense, as Lebanese and Bosnians had formerly described it.

The particular nostalgia of the displaced is evident from the frequently romanticised memory of being peaceable neighbours with people of other religions. And what often comes up is the rejection of the idea of being part of one group or another. An unhappy “But I’m still a Yugoslavian – my father was Serbian, my mother a Muslim” accompanies many an account.

Nazis were the lethal progenitors. Their affiliation-based terror was no tedious, slightly old-fashioned add-on to a totalitarian dictatorship but a central feature. It set itself against the enlightenment idea of a civil society governed by the rule of law. Hitler destroyed religiose, sentimentally populist, civic-minded citizenship. The legacy of the “Enlightenment”, however, was multiplicity within commonality.

But modernity’s contract with the enlightenment wasn’t immune to the effects of terror. If modern civil society allows the right to suppress cultural traditions derived from each particular tongue or religion, as the Turkish authorities did to people’s Kurdish culture in the ’80s, then the enlightenment idea of a democratically governed civic state shatters.


The anti-homogeneity explosives are detonating across the world, from Manhattan to Upper Egypt

It’s no longer merely a question – as it was in the 18th century – of tolerance and recognition of the “other”, but much more about a contemporary acceptance of similarity and equality. Terror opposes the common ground we share with others in the modern world. It opposes the necessary balance between each individual and today’s market economy and stands against young people’s hopes in their own particularity and participation in the world’s technological and innovative evolution. Because it’s no longer enough to extend a “we are all siblings” hand to each other. We’ve all become more similar as employees, as consumers on the international market, as citizens and even as commuters.

The anti-homogeneity explosives are detonating across the world, from Manhattan to Upper Egypt. Europeans killed in Algeria, Turkish families in Germany, tourists in Cairo and at the Turkish resort of Antalya. Compared to the victims of wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Afghanistan, the numbers of dead are low. But the lethal message has reached millions. Terror has a variety of foundations but a common motif – murder is intended as a call to arms. It’s not directed at individuals but at representatives of groups. The message is “Disappear. Don’t let me see you here again.” Terror meets its victims only by chance – its true targets are everyone else, all the foreigners in Germany or Algeria, every tourist in Egypt and Turkey.

It’s also aimed at the economic relationships that a country or community has with the world’s economic systems. Tourism is a crucial part of this. In Bosnia we’re witnessing the success of anti-economic terrorists against all cultures of coexistence. At the same time they raise a paradoxical prospect: once we’ve freed ourselves from “aliens”, the international community must then support us in our first steps into the future.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in his recent essay “Aussichten auf den Bürgerkrieg” (“Views of the Civil War“), writes about the global coming together in the face of conflicts conducted by means of terror. The essay has been rightly appreciated – which other German intellectual since 1989 has subjected themselves to the post-communist swamps of terrorism? He has been critiqued, with some justification, because underlying all the suicidal destructiveness there are genuine reasons why conflicts occur, and policies should be pursued so that these reasons aren’t reduced to “just a civil war” in the face of the threat of theoretical blindness.

This article originally appeared in Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch 4/1994 in the themed issue “Culture Wars. Challenges for Cultural Foreign Policy”. Translated by Scott Martingell.