Modern Serbian Historiography between Nation-Building and Critical Scholarship: The Case of Ilarion Ruvarac (1832–1905)
In the process of the construction of the Serbian nation, the discipline of history had a prominent role, as was true in the case of other European nations. Especially reinforced after recognition of the independent Principality of Serbia at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, this process led gradually to the building of a Serbian bourgeois society with all its modern institutions. A year later, an important controversy began, which was not limited to the academic circles, but strongly influenced all of Serbian culture over the course of the next 15 years. The controversy was marked by the dispute between supporters of a Romantic view of history and the supporters of the modern historical scholarship embodied in the work of Leopold von Ranke and his successors. The Romantics were ardent nationalists who, though they lacked an adequate knowledge of the relevant methods, used the past for the legitimation of their own nationalistic ideologies and were trying to demonstrate the continuity of the Serbian nation from Antiquity to modern times. Ilarion Ruvarac (1832–1905) played the key role in the refutation of this nationalistic para-historical ideology. Ruvarac accepted Ranke’s methodology, and he insisted on the “scientific character” of historical knowledge and its objectivity. He therefore insisted that “historical science” had to be based on critical assessments of archival sources, which could lead historians to the “historical truth.” According to this principle of historical scholarship, he researched different topics concerning the history of the Serbian and Balkan peoples from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. Emphasizing the methods of philological criticism, Ruvarac focused on resolving individual chronological and factual problems, which is why “contribution” and “article” were his favorite forms for the presentation of the results of his research. From this standpoint, he often engaged in polemics with the followers of the so-called “Romantic school” in Serbian historiography, demonstrating their “unscientific practice of history” and their lack of essential knowledge. After acrimonious debates with Pantelija-Panta Srećković and his supporters, which at the same time reflected the power distribution in the Serbian academic fields, by the end of the nineteenth century Ruvarac succeeded in establishing Serbian historiography on scientific grounds.
Keywords: Serbian historiography, Ilarion Ruvarac, nationalism